A.W. Tozer had the uncommon ability to step aside from his own culture, and see as alien what had become natural. Tozer saw that the pragmatic philosophy of Americans, which had brought such material success to the nation, was devastating the evangelical church. He wrote: “As one fairly familiar with the contemporary religious scene, I say without hesitation that a part, a very large part, of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it. Religious methodology is geared to it; it appears large in our youth meetings; magazines and books constantly glorify it; conventions are dominated by it; and the whole religious atmosphere is alive with it.” (“Pragmatism Goes to Church”, in God Tells the Man Who Cares.)
What was he referring to? What form did pragmatism take in the mid-twentieth century? The introduction of amusement into worship to make it familiar, fun, compelling and therefore popular. The replacement of the hymn heritage of the church with gospel songs, and singspiration hymns. The changing approach to youth ministry: segmenting the youth into herds, becoming a celebration of juvenility and silliness to make church fun and popular. The ministerial ambition for success, measured by the number of attendees, number of supposed converts, size of building programs, and size of annual budgets. The prevalent and increasing appeal of celebrityism, and the increasing place of publicity in Christian ministry. The commercialization of worship and discipleship and the subversion of the pulpit to pander to the tithers. This had begun in the 19th century, particularly under Charles Finney, picked up speed after the Civil War, gained impetus under D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and J. Frank Norris, and was by the mid-twentieth century, in Tozer’s words, the makeup of the whole religious atmosphere.
Tozer saw further. He recognized that pragmatism eventually affects the gospel itself. If all things are judged by their utilitarian value, that soon enough happens to Christ. “That Utilitarian Christ” is an article Tozer wrote to warn that the American gospel was fast becoming a means to man’s own selfish ends. “The New Cross”, Tozer would say, does not slay men, but leaves the old man very much alive, ready to consume certain religious habits he finds attractive.
Tozer died in 1963. The Jesus Movement would begin by the late 60s. Larry Norman, considered the father of Christian Rock, would release his first Christian Rock album in 1969. Bill Hybels would establish Willow Creek in 1975. Hillsong would release “The Power of Your Love” in 1992. Rick Warren would write “The Purpose-Driven Church” in 1995. In 1999, Joel Osteen would take over at Lakewood Church. In 2005, Time magazine would list among its 25 most influential evangelicals Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, James Dobson, and Brian McLaren. And in 1993, John MacArthur would write in his critique of pragmatism in the church, Ashamed of the Gospel, that what was now commonplace in the church was “staged wrestling matches, pie-fights, special-effects systems that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium, punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, dancers, weight-lifters, professional wrestlers, knife-throwers, body-builders, comedians, clowns, jugglers, rapmasters, show-business celebrities, reduced length of sermons, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and more.”
The last article Tozer wrote before his death was appropriately on the remedy for pragmatism. It was entitled, “The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches”. Imagine if we heeded these words, 53 years later:
“For the true Christian the one supreme test for the present soundness and ultimate worth of everything religious must be the place our Lord occupies in it. Is He Lord or symbol? Is He in charge of the project or merely one of the crew? Does He decide things or only help to carry out the plans of others? All religious activities, from the simplest act of an individual Christian to the ponderous and expensive operations of a whole denomination, may be proved by the answer to the question, Is Jesus Christ Lord in this act? Whether our works prove to be wood, hay and stubble or gold and silver and precious stones in that great day will depend upon the right answer to that question.”